The Raiders coaching staff is hoping Rolando McClain (No. 55) can be the hub of the defensive unit this season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
When the Oakland Raiders used the eighth pick of the 2010 NFL Draft to take linebacker Rolando McClain, it kicked off a silver-and-black celebration.
Getting the linebacker from Alabama was considered a coup. For the Crimson Tide, McClain was a defensive demon, a consensus All-American in 2009, the Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the fulcrum of a unit that helped Alabama win the BCS national championship.
At 6-foot-4 and 259 pounds, he was not only big and strong, but fast, able to sprint across the field to pull down running backs.
“We got a player of Rolando’s caliber with the eighth pick and I’m buzzing,” Raider head coach Tom Cable said just after the pick was made. Added Cable later: “What this guy’s unique quality is, is his football IQ and leadership and ability to get others around him to enjoy studying the game.”
After two seasons, however, the Raiders and their fans are still waiting for McClain’s breakout season. The middle linebacker has at times been very good, but just as often been disappointing.
Last season statistically was his best – 99 tackles in 15 games and five sacks – but the Oakland defense was a mess. Players – including McClain – were often caught out of position and committed two many mistakes and penalties. And, an off-field incident that occurred during a visit home to Alabama last season provided a distraction for both McClain and the team at a time when the Raiders were trying to make the playoffs.
Now, as new head coach Dennis Allen gets his team ready for the 2012 season opener on Monday night, Sept. 10, vs. the San Diego Chargers, it’s hoped McClain will thrive under a new defensive coordinator in Jason Tarver and a new defensive philosophy and scheme that features more varied fronts and coverages and more blitzing.
Allen, for one, says he loves what he’s seen from the third-year linebacker who’s still just 23 years old.
“A guy I think that has been exceptional has been Rolando McClain,” Allen said on a recent radio interview. “He’s been a guy that has done everything we have asked him to do. He’s smart. He understands the defense and the concepts we are trying to run, and if he continues to improve the way he has been improving and continues to fit within the scheme the way he has done so far, I would expect him to have a good year.”
McClain had knee and ankle troubles last season and had stem-cell therapy treatments to address those issues, reported Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. By all accounts McClain has felt better this summer, with less pain.
As Tafur noted, McClain has avoided talking with the media this summer, but on the first day of summer camp did talk about the new coaching staff asking him to be more of a leader this season.
“My nature is, I’m a quiet, sky guy and I keep to myself,” McClain told reporters. “The coaches ask me to get away from that. Basically, I’m trying to do that and I’m fighting with myself.”
Late in training camp, Allen said he’s been very pleased with how McClain has played and in his leadership role.
“We’ve got him in some positions where we allow him to make some plays,” Allen told Paul Gutierrez of CSNBayArea.com last week, “and he’s really excited about that aspect."
In the preseason, with limited playing time, McClain made 10 tackles, including six solo tackles.
Allen likes what he sees, but wants to see even more. More improvement until, eventually, McClain is the player the Raiders thought he could be on draft day of 2010.
“We’re working on different things and he’s been coming to work every day with the right attitude, trying to get better. And that’s all we can ask out of anybody,” he said.